E. Lynn Harris
Author | Class of 2000
Everette Lynn Harris was a bestselling author of novels about African-American men in gay and bisexual relationships. In his nine novels, which have sold more than three million copies, the gay characters are “on the down low” or have not publicized their sexuality. Harris endured years of abuse at the hands of his stepfather and for years denied his own homosexuality.
E. Lynn Harris was born on June 20, 1955, in Flint, Michigan, to Etta Mae Williams and James Jeter, who were unmarried. When Harris was three, he moved with his mother to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she worked as a housekeeper. She married Ben Odis Harris, who helped rear Harris until he was thirteen, when the couple divorced. Harris had three younger sisters. The summer before his junior year of high school, when Harris was fifteen, he learned about his biological father and visited him several times while staying with relatives in Michigan. Jeter died in an automobile accident the next spring.
In his youth, Harris frequented the public library in Little Rock and fell in love with the writings of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. He also worked at the Little Rock Zoo, Baskin-Robbins, Arkansas Paper Co., and M. M. Cohn; he used the income to buy clothes and school supplies.
Harris graduated from Hall High School in Little Rock in 1973 and attended the University of Arkansas (U of A) at Fayetteville in the mid1970s. He was the school’s first black male cheerleader and first black yearbook editor. He served as president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He graduated with honors in 1977, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism.
He sold computers for IBM and other companies for thirteen years; during this time, he lived in Dallas, Texas; New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Atlanta, Georgia. For years, he kept his sexual orientation hidden, and this led to depression and heavy drinking. In August 1990 while he lived in Washington, D.C., he attempted suicide by ingesting a mixture of champagne, vodka, and sleeping pills. He soon got sober and managed his depression with medication and therapy. He bought a computer and started writing his first book, which proved to be therapeutic.
While Harris lived in Atlanta, he self-published his novel Invisible Life in 1991 and personally hand-delivered it to black-owned bookstores and beauty salons. In this coming-of-age tale, the book’s protagonist, Raymond Tyler, discovers his bisexuality and struggles to accept his true desires. Invisible Life caught the eye of a Doubleday sales representative, who bought a copy and sent it to the publishing house. Eventually, Harris made a presentation to company officials, who signed him to a three-book deal. Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday, published the book in trade paperback in 1994.
Among his other novels are Just As I Am (1994), And This Too Shall Pass (1996), If This World Were Mine (1997), Abide with Me (1999), Not a Day Goes By (2000), Any Way the Wind Blows (2001), A Love of My Own (2002), and I Say a Little Prayer (2006). His books tell ultimately optimistic stories that explore friendship, careers, romance, sexuality, and race. Harris wrote with an ear for black dialect, with descriptions, slang terms, and dialogue. Just As I Am, Any Way the Wind Blows, and A Love of My Own all won Novel of the Year designations by the Blackboard African American Bestsellers, Inc. In 1997, If This World Were Mine won the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence. His memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, which he wrote over a period of seven years, was published in 2003.
In 1999, Harris’s college alma mater honored him with a Citation of Distinguished Alumni for outstanding professional achievement. Other honors include the Sprague Todes Literary Award, the Harvey Milk Honorary Diploma, and the Silas Hunt Legacy Award for Outstanding Achievement from the U of A.
Harris returned to the U of A in the fall of 2003 to teach literature and writing in the Department of English, and he served as cheer coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks cheerleading squad. For his class on contemporary black authors, he brought in authors as guest speakers. He also taught a class focused on black female writers. He lived in Fayetteville while he taught at the university, but he also had homes in Houston, Texas, and Atlanta at the time.
A musical based on Not a Day Goes By toured nationally in 2004. As a lecturer, Harris spoke at colleges across the country. He wrote articles for Sports Illustrated, Essence, The Washington Post Sunday Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Advocate.
Harris’s novel I Say a Little Prayer was released in May 2006. It was written while he was at the U of A and during the time spent at his Houston home. It debuted at number three on The New York Times Book Review’s bestseller list. He subsequently published Just Too Good to Be True (2008) and Basketball Jones (2009).
Harris died on July 24, 2009, in Los Angeles, California, while he was there on a business trip.